In staid Singapore, a national election that could change its course

Zuraidah Ibrahim says the city state's upcoming election, its first since the death of Lee Kuan Yew, may yet change the direction of its political development and style of rule

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 9:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 September, 2015, 10:34am

No financial crisis to navigate. No power struggle within the ruling elite. No rowdy protests, and not even the realistic prospect of a change of government. Welcome to elections, Singapore style. This is not debt-ridden Greece, which goes to the polls this month; or Malaysia, where a former premier is stoking people power against the incumbent.

If you yawn at the mere mention of a general election in Singapore, you can be forgiven. To an outside observer, the Singapore GP is probably more exciting than the Singapore GE: the Formula 1 grand prix the week after promises more twists and turns.

One would be wrong, though, to conclude that Friday's election is inconsequential, or that Singaporeans are attending opposition rallies in droves out of sheer boredom. There is still enough unpredictability in the polls to keep the bookies busy. And there is enough at stake for ruling party candidates to pound the pavements with a vengeance.

True, the big picture is a foregone conclusion. Despite this being the first election in independent Singapore in which every seat is being contested, the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) will have no trouble winning most of them, and thus forming the next government. Even if the opposition trebles in strength, it will still hold fewer than a quarter of the seats.

These two weeks every four to five years create the most unscripted event in the world's most planned country

None of the opposition parties is even asking for the PAP to be ousted just yet. They know the vast majority of Singaporeans accept that only the PAP can run the country right now.

However, Singapore elections have never been about stark numbers alone. They are also about perception. The PAP's results are treated like the share price of a major corporation. Even if its absolute value remains high, everyone focuses on its losses and gains. These movements, as much as its underlying value, have a big impact on its clout and self-confidence.

In the last general election, it won 60 per cent of the popular vote - a landslide by global standards. But this was its lowest vote share since independence. The opposition also achieved a psychological breakthrough by winning one of the multi-seat constituencies. PAP teams in these Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) used to be thought of as invincible, as the PAP would group heavyweights with rookies in each. But in 2011, a GRC fell and it lost three ministers.

Stunned PAP leaders have spent the past four years trying to fix unpopular policies. There have been undeniable improvements in access to public housing and the number of buses on the road. Immigration has been tightened, but probably remains people's main grievance.

At great public expense, the government also rolled out a massive celebration of the country's 50th national day, leveraging on the fact that the Singapore story is intimately intertwined with the PAP's. Then there was Lee Kuan Yew's passing in March, which elicited a spontaneous outpouring of gratitude to the republic's founders, as well as sympathy for his son, current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Before the campaign started, the money was on the PAP slowing or even reversing the opposition's advance. But now nobody really knows.

Voters may reward the PAP for its policy reforms. Or, they may buy its opponents' argument that it took a growing opposition to make the PAP more responsive to people's needs.

Lee Kuan Yew's death could result in a strong sympathy vote. Or, his memory could convince voters that current PAP leaders are not of the same calibre.

The 50th birthday bash could produce a nationalistic surge for the PAP. But then, the last time an election was called in a jubilee year - the 25th anniversary of self-rule in 1984 - the PAP suffered its worst-ever drop in its popular vote, from more than 77 per cent to under 65 per cent.

The official campaign period is short, just nine days. Conventional wisdom says this makes it hard for the opposition to get its message across. But the PAP, too, may have insufficient time to deal with all the attacks that are suddenly flooding in from opposition rallies and social media.

So, it is no wonder that most Singaporeans get caught up in election fever. These two weeks every four to five years create the most unscripted event in the world's most planned country.

Citizens suddenly see their government leaders courting them like fevered lovers. In normal times, there are stricter restrictions on free expression and public assembly. But during the campaign, the lid comes off. Not completely, but enough for a euphoric if ephemeral sensation of power to the people.

And this year the main issue emerging is quite fundamental. Good governance remains the shared goal, but two starkly different means are on offer. The PAP says that its continued dominance is the best guarantee of performance: a big win will let it put together a strong fourth-generation leadership. Its opponents argue that Singapore needs a stronger opposition to ensure accountable government, and to prepare for an alternative to the PAP.

Either route will keep the PAP government in power for five more years, but the country's politics could be fundamentally altered by how Singaporeans choose at this fork in the road.

Zuraidah Ibrahim is a senior editor at the Post. Follow her on Twitter @zuibrahim